Book Review: Red tents by Mary Ann Clements and Aisha Hannibal

There hasn’t been a post in a couple of weeks – sorry about that. I’m still working on mental health stuff and feeling very grateful to have the facility to take the time off the day job to do this. I think things are improving – I am after all reading again! – but there’s still a journey ahead of me. In the mean time, one of the books I’ve read, just finished this morning in fact, is Red Tents: Unravelling Our Past and Weaving a Share Future by Mary Ann Clements and Aisha Hannibal.

Image of the Red Tents book by Mary Ann Clements and Aisha Hannibal, a red book with a scene outlined in red and white showing a city scape in the foreground and a nature scape in the background with a crescent moon on the right hand side of the sky and the rest of the sky filled with stars

I have run red tents in the past, but I stopped because I couldn’t match my own development of understanding of things like gender and oppression and equality and inclusivity with what I saw as a very binary situation. I tried for a while to reconcile these and eventually I gave up. But this book answers a lot of the questions I had at that time and then some.

The book is split into 4 parts. The first goes through the history/herstory of red tents, as well as the authors vision for the future of a more inclusive and accessible gathering. Part 2, the longest part, is about the mechanics of starting a red tent, what you bring to the table, what’s the vision, looking at collaboratively and collectively creating the space and the guidelines and the finances and the boundaries. This section is hugely helpful if you are thinking of setting up a red tent but have no clue what to think about or where to even begin. Part 3 is about the fundamentals of each session and different explorations of what can work, what might not work, how flexible it needs to be, etc. Part 4 is about dealing with challenges and growth and closing or stepping away from a tent.

I was genuinely surprised by the book. I was worried it was going to be more of the same with regard to “white woman spirituality” but it wasn’t – or at least it didn’t read like this to me. I am of course open to being corrected by those who would know better. The authors have dug deep into their own experiences and the experiences of others who have run red tents through interviews, as well as looking into research, academic work, academics speaking on matters of inclusivity, whether it be welcoming BIPOC )black indigenous people of colour) or non-binary gendered people or those less financially well off into the circle. They also bring up issues of accessibility, not only those with physical differences, but childcare issues, locations, public transport, length of time. To me is seems like a comprehensive look at what can stop people availing of the support a red tent can offer – along with prompts for questions to ask ourselves along the way.

I am sure there are things that are left out – there is the constant consideration that red tents happen all over the world, within different cultures, and this needs to feed into the process. They also being up the topic of cultural appropriation as well, which was good to see and specifically address the issue of smudging as a problematic topic, while also allowing the space for the members of the red tent to bring their own cultures and traditions into the space.

The authors are pretty clear on the fact that there is no One True Way to run a red tent – the tent must be flexible to deal with the needs of the people attending at the time. And those needs would change according to the composition of the group as well.

I think for those who are thinking of starting a red tent or a women’s circle or some sort of talking/being space, it’s a really useful handbook to have in the back pocket. If you have no interest in starting a space like this, but want to join one – again, this is a useful thing to consult to make sure you’re joining a group that coincides with your values and needs at this time. Even if you don’t want either, but want to develop yourself or get clear on what you think and feel about certain things, I think a lot of the prompts/ self reflection questions will help you gain that clarity. I know I will be revisiting them in the future to help me regain where I stand on certain topics.

I feel that Brigid could support a red tent as is outlined in this book, in ways she couldn’t support some of the red tents I’ve attended in the past. This is outlining a vision of inclusivity, learning, growth and development that will lead us to look at communities and groups differently and hopefully promote a better outlook on how we run things in the future.

Added to note: following a discussion in the Brigid’s Forge Facebook group, I want to acknowledge and note that the book doesn’t acknowledge the origins of the red tent within the Jewish tradition. This was something I missed in the post and my apologies for it!

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